Black giantsRemaining population of rare wild yaks will be extinct if conservation initiatives are not taken immediately
In 2014, while visiting the remote trans-Himalayas of upper Humla for research, our team came across wild yaks that were considered extinct in Nepal. Following the rediscovery, I led a research project on wild yaks in the same area in 2015.
Unlike domestic yaks, wild yaks have a larger body size, bigger horns, a greyish muzzle, a conspicuous hump, and a consistent black coat. These robust animals run away as soon as they spot humans, and therefore, are referred as ‘ferocious cowards’. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, their population has declined by about 30 percent in the last 30 years, primarily due to hunting by humans.
People and yaks
Our local guide informed us that wild yaks are called Dong in the Tibetan language and that various parts of the animal have medicinal value. For example, dried wild yak blood from the heart is used for low altitude sickness and ash from burning the forehead hair is used for mouth sores.
Communities in the region have long been taming wild yaks for domestic purposes. Limels, people from Limi Village Development Committee, have an intricate cultural relation with wild yaks. They use wild yak tendons to make the rope of a bow that is used in wedding ceremonies. The groom hits an arrow from the bow into a wooden plate placed around the waist of the bride, symbolising a formal union between the two. Similarly, if a drought persists for a long time, people in the village worship water sources with wild yak hair deposited close by. It is believed that such a practice recharges the water sources.
However, the local herders complained about their occasional conflicts with wild yaks. Wild yaks from Tibet usually travel across the border into Humla during the months of July to August to mate with female domestic yaks. Villagers confessed to trying to kill wild yaks as the hybrids resulting from interbreeding between wild yaks and domestic yaks can be shyer and difficult to domesticate. But the greed of obtaining large amount of meat also drives them to kill wild yaks, which they failed to mention. The Limels and the Rongbas (people from lower elevations) kill wild yaks for meat. During the last ten years, at least eight wild yaks have been killed in Humla. A young herder from Chuwa khola valley, east of Limi valley, boasted that he, along with 18 of his friends, had killed three wild yaks on a single day in 2013. They kept the meat and sold the heads in Tibet, since Tibetan people hang the heads above the entrance of their homes as a status symbol. This has also motivated regular killings of wild yaks.
Need for conservation
We saw two wild yaks in Gyau Valley in June 2014, while in July 2015 we only saw one. The herders had not reached these meadows for grazing their livestock back in 2014 but in 2015 some domestic yaks were already grazing in the same location. Ironically, we saw around 200 domestic yaks grazing in the same place when we returned after 20 days having explored other valleys. This clearly indicates that herders encroach upon the natural habitat of wild yaks during the summer months. This proximity increases the likelihood of hybridisation between the domestic and wild yaks, which can lead to the extinction of the wild species. Domestic yaks may also contract diseases such as Brucellosis and Salmonella from wild yaks when the two occupy the same range.
The places where we sighted wild yaks were relatively close to the Chinese border and the animals fled northward after spotting us. Renowned wildlife biologist, George Schaller, mentions that wild yaks are not migratory but may shift ranges seasonally or if harassed. However, it is not confirmed if the wild yaks that we encountered are residential in Nepal and possibly shifting range to a far-off location due to habitat encroachment by herders as suggested by Schaller, or if they are migrants from Tibet as believed by the herders.
Wild yak habitats in Tibet have degraded due to an increasing road network. In upper Humla though, this factor is not significant yet as remote locations preferred by wild yaks are unlikely to be subjected to road encroachment in the near future.
Limels assume that about five to ten wild yaks inhabit their area. About the same number of them are considered to roam the pastures of Chuwa khola valley. The herders reported four sightings of wild yaks in July 2015 and three in August 2015 in the valley.
Wild yaks face diverse threats such as hunting for meat, poaching for heads, habitat encroachment and conflict with herders. As such, it is likely that such a small remaining population of the rare wild yaks in Humla will go extinct if appropriate conservation initiatives are not taken immediately. It is high time all major stakeholders of wildlife conservation in Nepal came together and act effectively for the conservation of wild yaks; otherwise these black giants of the Himalayas will probably go extinct from Nepal in a few years.
Khusi is wildlife conservation officer at Friends of Nature